Trumpeting Dixie on their musical horns, a parade of vintage Italian compacts cars drove down Corso Umberto I in Leonforte. People scrambled to the sidewalk to avoid the fun-sized motorcade. My wife and I were surprised to find the town bustling with so many people on the first Sunday of October. Its cobblestone streets were lined with food stalls. Billows of smoke brightened by the morning sunshine rose from sizzling grills and infused the brisk autumn air with intoxicating aromas. We had stumbled on the Sagra della Pesca, an annual food fair. Celebrating their recent harvest, farmers had come from far and wide to display the region’s cornucopia of delicacies — cured meat, wine and cheese — and each one had to be sampled. A busking teenager played an upbeat tarantella on his accordion. “Isn’t that from ‘The Godfather’?” I asked.
“No,” said Roberta, “that’s ‘C'è la luna mezzo mare’, a traditional Sicilian song.” She sampled a local cheese and smacked her lips. “They have all the ingredients we need for a fantastic picnic,” she said. Being Sicilian, and my wife, she knew what to choose.
Sagra della Pesca
“Looking around at today’s lively, kid-friendly harvest fest,” I said, as I bit into a slice of capocollo dolce, a salami that a vendor with a weather-beaten face had offered me, “it’s hard to reconcile what happened here 80 years ago.” Evidence of the violence was all but gone, buried deep below cobblestones and hidden behind walls, but Leonforte was once the site of a fierce World War II battle between invading Canadian forces and defending German and Italian forces.
I am Canadian and Roberta and I live on Vancouver Island. Since marrying five years ago, she and I have visited Sicily on four occasions together. Based in Messina, her hometown, we usually stay for a month so she can take care of her aging parents, restore familial ties, and look up old friends. Each time, we explore somewhere new. My interest in history has taken us to a few hidden wonders of Sicilian antiquity that not even Roberta had seen before. Previously, we toured the ancient Greek temples and theatres in the coastal cities, explored Norman cathedrals and spent time on the Aeolian Islands, but this was our first time travelling away from the coast.
As we drove inland from the Ionian sea, away from Mount Etna’s ever-watchful cyclopian eye, Sicily became more arid and the countryside unfolded like ripples of roasted ricotta. The roads were in good nick, there were few cars, and the view transformed with every mile, winding over a wheaten, sun-dried land — the grain fields that once fed an ambivalent Rome. There has been a human presence here for 16,000 years. Before that, giant swans and Pygmy elephants ranged. When the Greeks arrived in the 8th Century BC they found remains of a creature that had a massive skull with a large cavity in the centre of its forehead, and naturally assumed the island was inhabited by cyclopses, rather than small elephants. Persephone, the mythological embodiment of Spring and fertility, is said to have been gathering flowers with nymphs in a field near here when Hades blasted through a fissure in the earth and dragged her into the underworld. The result was famine and drought. I suggested to Roberta that we make a diversion to Leonforte as part of the research I needed to do for a book I am writing.
Like a lion surveying the savannah, the town stood high on the terrain. During Sicily’s Byzantine period, and later under the Muslim Emirate of Sicily, it was fortified. In 1610 Nicolò Placido Branciforti founded a city here, naming it Leonforte in tribute to his family's coat of arms. And in the summer of 1943, Leonforte was a large, modern town by Sicilian standards, with around 20,000 natives living alongside Germany’s 104th Panzer Grenadier Regiment.
In July 1943, the 1st Canadian Division participated in the Allied invasion of Sicily, the first major pushback against the fascists in the Second World War. After landing on the beaches in the southeast of the island, they had advanced with little resistance against Sicilian and Italian forces. Still, communications, bridges, and culverts had been systematically destroyed by the retreating Germans, who then scattered mines everywhere. Because of its high iron content, the lava soil made it harder to detect mines in Sicily which caused the Allies long and serious delays.
“Drive the Canadians hard,” ordered General Montgomery, and hard they were driven, over steep sun-caked hills and through fiery valleys and across the barren Sicilian countryside. It was so hot that medical orderlies could not get accurate readings because their thermometers would not drop below the 102-degree mark. July is not among the months recommended for tourist travel in Sicily. But no one had told the men of the 1st Division that, eh.
Montgomery addressing Canadian troops in Sicily
In late July, the Canadians were given the unenviable task of taking Leonforte from the Germans. The approach to the town was a steep ravine, spanned by a long bridge that German engineers had destroyed before the Canadians arrived. While under heavy fire, four of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment’s rifle units managed to negotiate the ravine and enter Leonforte at midday. German and Italian defenders, now reinforced by tanks, launched a furious counterattack. As the sun set, the Loyal Edmonton Regiment was surrounded by enemy forces and completely cut off in the medieval town’s centre. But as the enemy closed in, they held their position.
“We were in the northeast corner of the town,” wrote Major Henry Bell-Irving. “My idea at the time was that we're here, and we'd better stay. I thought we might find something relatively strong that we could hold, and stay there until somebody caught up. There were German tanks in the street, and I can remember lying in the ditch with a tank right alongside me, and another firing along the ditch with tracer. There was tracer all over the place. We tried to throw grenades into the tanks, but it was quite hopeless.”
During the night, a Sicilian boy with a note addressed to "any Canadian or British Officer" managed to slip through German lines and deliver the message to the commander of the 2nd Brigade. That brave ragazzo had thrown the encircled Canadians a life line. The next morning, crossing a bridge that had been hastily erected before dawn across the ravine by Canadian engineers, tanks and anti-tank guns arrived and attacked the town. German troops attempted to counter the assault, and vicious house-to-house fighting ensued. By noon, however, Leonforte was entirely in Allied hands and Canadian pipes and drums played in the town square.
Canuks aren’t known for their imperial aspirations. Canada was colonized but not a colonizer. And yet, for a brief spell in history, we occupied this part of Sicily. I wish that made me proud, but the battle has a darker side. In their book, The Battle of Sicily: How the Allies Lost Their Chance for Total Victory, Samuel W. Mitcham and Stephen Von Stauffenberg allege that Canadian soldiers shot dead unarmed German pris oners in full view of their comrades who were still fighting. Canadian Armed Forces have never acknowledged that war crimes were committed here. But the Germans claim it is the reason the fighting was so fierce. “This occurrence soon became known throughout the division and heightened its determination to resist,” said General Eberhard Rodt, commander of the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division. The occurrence is impossible to verify as most of those who survived have since passed on. Google “war crimes by the Loyal Edmonton Regiment in Sicily” and nothing comes up. Another Sicilian mystery goes unsolved.
Roberta and I found an idyllic spot in an olive grove surrounded by cedars overlooking Leonforte, and tucked into our picnic of delicacies. At midday, the town’s terracotta and mustard-walled buildings glowed like a beacon. Our picnic owed much to the sacrifices made here on this now comely and peaceful battleground. We raised a glass of rustic wine for the fallen, friend and foe, the many young Canadians, Italians and Germans who gave their lives here. And unlike most of the many wars fought over Sicily since time immemorial, this one was for a good cause.
When I was young I caught a dose of the Funk. I was eight. It was 1970, a year when you could look up at the Moon and say, “there are people up there.” We were living in Ibadan, Nigeria. James Brown was coming to town. In the aftermath of a brutal civil war, Nigerians were ready to get a brand new bag on. All day long Alfred, my Yoruba friend and mentor, played ’Sex Machine’, and danced to and/or sang along with, “Stay on the scene, (get on up), like a sex machine, (get on up)”. In my teens, the Funk would strike again and again, like a persistent boyhood fever. “Ow!”
The next time I was living in Dar-es-salaam, Tanzania. Aged 13, I’d already had my first puff of marijuana so why not resample the Funk. At the International School of Tanganyika, Kevin, a black American student hit me up with a triple whammy: Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, Earth, Wind and Fire’s Gratitude, and the Jackson 5’s Dancing Machine. Sure, this was mainstream black music, tamed by white sensitivities, but it had something of the Funk to it, and a whole lotta soul. Kool and the Gang’s ‘Spirit of the Boogie’, mind you, was pure Funk. I felt it in my groin. “Cause when the boogie come to get you / You ain't got nowhere to go“. From then on I couldn’t control my dancing feet. The best discos at the Yacht Club were the ones where the Funk got top billing. I’d hear Van McCoy’s ‘The Hustle’, War’s ‘Low Rider’, George McCrea’s ‘I Get Lifted’, or David Bowie’s ‘Fame’ and get all loose and funky like a bowlegged monkey to the beats. White boys can dance. In 1978 the fullness of the Funk finally found its way into my ear. Trapped in Tananarive, the capital of Madagascar, for a week on my way home from boarding school in Fort Dauphin, I hung out at a clubhouse run by the Marines who guarded the US Embassy. It had a bar, a pool table, and a high-end stereo. Marines are dedicated followers of the Funk, I’d soon find out. I heard Parliament, Bootsy Collins, and Funkadelic, whose song 'Maggot Brain' was a trip, perfectly in sync with a marijuana joint. One Marine could twirl a pool cue in time to ‘One Nation Under A Groove’. Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, released the year I repatriated, was a turning point in the Funk, and in my own musical journey. My family record collection included Shakara, an album by Fela Kuti that is credited with being an essential influence on Remain in Light. Raised on African polyrhythms, I could relate to that ethno-funk more than I could my home and native land. When I heard to the album’s hit song, ‘Once In A Lifetime’ for the first time, I was surprised, elated and grateful. It was as if Talking Heads had heard the quarrel between my heart and head and turned it into music.
It begins with a sonic boom, a blow to the solar plexus — drum, bass, and synth fused into one explosive note — then takes off on a fiery trajectory, driven by looping grooves, an odd time signature, and a myriad of instruments, arranged by producer Brian Eno into an exquisite confusion, like an open market in Ibadan. ‘Once In A Lifetime’ confronted me. “And you may ask yourself, "Well... how did I get here?” sings David Byrne, who later said the song was about the unconscious: "We operate half-awake or on autopilot and end up, whatever, with a house and family and job and everything else, and we haven't really stopped to ask ourselves, 'How did I get here?'" That certainly was the burning question in my mind at the time. How the funk did I end up feeling like a foreigner in my own country, searching for an identity? Living in the gloomy metropolis of Toronto only intensified that culture shock. But my dissonance could always be soothed by the Funk.
Not until it all got rolled into one delicious funk-cicle did I stand up and finally pay full attention to the Funk, tho. The year was 1985. I'd just dropped out of university and was on a year-long westward trek from British Columbia to England (though, at the time, I was oblivious to my journey's end). As before, I hung out at the Marine House. One night a funk-loving Grunt put on Prince’s Purple Rain. Raised on a diet of rock and soul, I immediately recognized the bold and brilliant act of crossover that this new, fresh funk-rock signified, and I danced my ass off to that jam. The Funk would never be the same again.
“Do you suppose that you alone have had this experience? Are you surprised, as if it were a novelty, that after such long travel and so many changes of scene you have not been able to shake off the gloom and heaviness of your mind? You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate.” — Seneca
My passport is my most valued possession. I keep it close to hand, like a sidearm or a manifesto for a revolution that I have sworn to bring about. It is packed with security features: holograms, complex graphics and indecipherable cryptograms. It bears some clues to my identity, not just my identifying features but my actual identity. Imprinted into the pages of that thin book, in faded ink, are all the dates and places that pinpoint my life story. It has been scrutinized, and sometimes confiscated by corrupt border officials. Oddly, I identify more with failed states than I do my own passport country, whose good standing in the international community has eased my passage across the globe. I could not care less about citizenship and nationalism. First and foremost I am an Earthling. Second, I am a global nomad. Freedom of movement across the planet is what I care most about, it is the most precious thing we can have as human beings.
They did not stamp my passport when I arrived. It seems they no longer stamp passports upon reentry. Entry stamps used to be an art form. Travellers in the 1970s were subjected to an array of clever acronyms. Best known is the SHIT stamp: Suspected Hippie In Transit. Scruffy undesirables that trailed across Southeast Asian borders would have ‘SHIT” stamped in their passports. They never stamped it in mine. While I was travelling solo through the region in the mid 1980s, two of my passports were stolen in six weeks. The authorities suspected I was selling them and put me on a watch list. I imagine they still have a dossier with my name on it. In Kampala, after drinking one too many Extra Strong Brew’s, I lost a third passport to stupidity. And on a wild and windy night on the Kenyan coast —while I slept in a four poster bed on the second floor of my friend’s ocean-front villa with the bedroom’s beveled glass doors wide open to the elements, as waves crashed against coral cliffs with a steady, fat beat, and palm fronds danced like ravers in the wind, and all that aural delirium was reverberating through my unconscious mind — a stealthy band of thieves snuck into my bedroom and made off with my MacBook Pro, my portable speaker, and a travel wallet containing US dollars and my passport.
When I discovered the theft, I called the police. Two hours later, a pot-bellied officer and his hijab-wearing adjutant showed up to launch an investigation. They took my statement and particulars and inspected my room. They quickly deduced that the thieves had climbed up the outside wall of the house and entered from the terrace. Searching the grounds for any clues the robbers may have left behind, we followed a set of footprints to an adjacent beach. There, laying face down on the soft white sand a few feet from the surf, like a drowned migrant, was my passport. For all I knew, the cops were in on the crime and had simply dropped it there while I was not looking. Sykes monkeys might have taken it. Who cares? I had my damn passport back.
Big boots. Small planet. Once I collected all the expired passports still in my possession and made a spreadsheet from the dates and places. By the age of 21, I had lived in seven countries on three continents and travelled more than 100,000 miles, circling the globe thrice.
Not everyone wants to travel. Some people never leave the town they were born in. Some only travel within countries that resonated with their own beliefs. These days people avoid travelling by air because of terrorism, viruses or climate change, and will travel as far as they can by rail, road, and sea instead. Psychonauts travel in their own minds. Refugees travel through no choice of their own. Migrants choose to travel and arrive just as weary. Stoics like Seneca shunned travel as a distraction from one’s self, fleeing the life one has created. Travel is not for everyone. But like it or not, we all travel. Even if we stay put, we travel. Because as it moves through space, the Earth is always in motion: rotating, wobbling, and orbiting the Sun. Your position on Earth creates a pattern in space, what I call your chrono-spatial trajectory. Even if you stay put, the planet’s motions ensure you will have a chrono-spatial trajectory, one that resembles one of those coiled telephone cords from 30 years ago. Remember when one of those got so tangled it was impossible to restore it to its original shape? That is my chrono-spatial trajectory.
My whole life I have been in orbit, spinning around the planet, unable to return home. I am like a forgotten ape aboard a rusty space capsule launched in the early years of the Rocket Age. I have been falling to Earth ever since. But every time I get close to reentry, a solar flare, or a piece of space junk, or that bone that the man-ape hurls in 2001: A Space Odyssey pushes me back up into orbit again. I may never return to Earth. Growing up in Africa and Asia during the 1960s and 70s turned me into a terminal global nomad. They say variety is the spice of life, but I have yet to find a recipe that palatably blends the disparate cultural ingredients to which I have been exposed. I am my own melting pot. And I have a backstage pass to the world.
Like my father, I am not a joiner. My allegiances are few, except to the causes of rationality, enlightenment, and truth. I have lived all over the world. Those experiences have given me rare insight into the workings of our planet. I cannot be swayed by the knee-jerk polemics of myopic people who see less than I do. I am not into alternative lifestyles. Green tea, yoga, and veganism are not going to fix my life. I am. I do not need help. I eat healthily, make ethical consumer choices, and try to keep my carbon footprint small. Globetrotting is incompatible with finicky dietary needs. Nothing offends a host like turning your nose up at their fare. Otherwise, I make my own decisions and do not allow those who I do not love to interfere.
I do not believe the planet needs me. But I need the planet, like a junky needs smack. As someone who has dropped out of three universities, lived on four continents, and had five careers, I do not fit any social profile. I once believed there would be an end to this nomadic life, that I would one day repatriate to my home and native land and be sedentarily content. Usually I am quick to adapt to a new surrounding and can fit in anywhere. So why not Canada?
It may sound ungracious of me to bellyache about an upbringing as rich, diverse and exotic as mine. It shaped my worldview, made me a world citizen. Sure, I bounced from school to school but I still got an exceptional education. And if I could go back in time, I would not change a bit of it. OK, maybe a bit. Knowing what I know today, I might try to harbour less grief, not rebel when it serves no purpose, and stay in touch with my passport country, maintain better ties with my kin. Being a global nomad, a Cross Culture Kid, a hidden immigrant is a double-edged sword. Nothing good comes without a price. Mine is homelessness.
This book is about my struggles with repatriation, with making a home in my homeland. It is a memoir about the uneasy transition I have faced, again and again, in returning to my passport country, and the reasons why global nomads find it so damn hard to repatriate. In transitioning to repat, after a lifetime as expat, I confront some of my poor choices, understand the reasons for them, and try to discover who I really am. My hope is that, as I begin to take some agency in my life, I will get over myself, regain my integrity and become a better man.
Another year, another chronospatial trajectory: 24,000 miles.
A year ago, I flew from Los Cabos to Ottawa, saw in Halloween at Liam’s house (one helluva party, nephew), then took a bus to New York City. A fortnight later, I returned to Kenya for an indefinite stay, or as long as I could get away with it. I ran a backpackers hostel out of Joe Bennie’s oceanfront villa and spent the rest of my time either at Driftwood or Fishing Club, getting tanked with the locals. I wrote a lot, too, in this drinking village with a fishing problem.
The emotional journey was a roller coaster. When I left Cabo at the end of October I believed I was saying farewell to my father for the very last time. He’d suffered a stroke and an infection. “It’s probably the last time you’ll see me,” he said when I hugged and kissed him goodbye. “I sure as hell hope so!” he added.
A month later, I was eating focaccia at Rosada restaurant in Malindi when in walked Roberta Romeo, a Sicilian goddess of rare charm and beauty. It all happened so quickly, like Appalonia and Michael in The Godfather: “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday; Michael, andiamo... BOOM!”
“Careful,” said Barry, when he saw the two of us together at Driftwood, “she’s Sicilian, she’ll cut your throat.”
“No,” said Roberta, flashing me a gap-toothed smile, “I smash on your face.” And so began our whirlwind romance, which lasted through the New Year until the money ran out.Roberta returned to Sicily while I stayed on in Kenya for a bit, prevaricating about my future. But we couldn’t bear being apart and six weeks later we were reunited on Vancouver Island. We’ve been there ever since, putting down roots and building a future. Last month we got married.
I now understand how Fifties Cinema let curvy Italian brunettes like Lollobrigida and Loren steal the limelight from curvy American blondes like Munro and Mansfield. It’s all in their attitude. When my mambo-Italiano bombshell wife spouts forth her hilarious one-liners peppered with pithy Sicilian maledictions, it can sometimes feel like I’m living in a hit sitcom. Pass the pasta!
Then, in April, the money ran out. So, I decided to return to Canada.
I’ve grown up fast. I did not expect to start a whole new life in my fifties. Repatriating to my home and native land after thirty three years an émigré was in itself a stretch. It helped that just six weeks later I landed such a sweet job: fundraising for Providence Farm. It's been a while since I had a steady job. And now to start the blindingly bureaucratic procedure of sponsoring Roberta so she can freely live and work in Canada, too. Vaffanqulo!
“Am I glad to see you,” said my dad, when Roberta and I stopped by his care home on the way in from the airport. We had just arrived in Los Cabos. Though still bedridden, he’s in pretty good health. And his mind is sound. “Welcome to the family,” he told Roberta.
It’s a year to the day since I left Los Cabos. So, in a manner of speaking, I’ve made ends meet, book-ended my chronospatial trajectory. Wonder where serendipity will take me next? Hold on!
At daybreak on 4 November 1587 the King of Spain’s great Manila galleon, the Santa Ana was in sight of Isla de California. It was a crisp, clear day, without a single cloud in the sky. Tomás de Alzola stood on the prow of his command searching for signs of life on the desert hills. He knew the place was inhabited by Pericú indians. But they were peaceful and kept a low profile. Pirates were his main concern.
The nabobs of the South Sea Admiralty, in their infinite wisdom, had decided to remove his cannons before he left Acapulco in April, and use them to protect the port against pirate raids. "That way you’ll have more room for cargo" they said. Now all he had to protect his ship was blunderbusses and stones.
Alzola took a deep breath. The air, though dry, was saturated with warm fragrances from the coast: mimosa, prickly pear, and sun dried coral. “I can already smell the fresh water of Aguarda Segura,” he sighed, putting a hand on his first mate’s shoulder, “and we’re not even past the cape yet.”
The arced promontory of Cabo San Lucas was a welcome sight. Awash with surf and sunlight it looked like the hand of Neptune fumbling in the shallows for errant mermaids.
He reached into his jacket pocket and took out an antique brass navigational instrument, an astrolabe that was a gift from the Archbishop of Seville, Cristóbal Rojas Sandoval, who had died the very same day that he had given it to him. Along with his spyglass, it was one of the captain’s few keepsakes.
"Another 700 miles of this wretched 9,000-mile journey to go," thought Alzola. "After watering at Aguada Segura we should reach Acapulco in ten days." He was delighted to have crossed in such good time, just four months from Manila. For the first time since setting sail, he was happy.
A turkey vulture circled overhead. The pallor of corpses yet clung to the decks. Nearly half of those who had boarded the Santa Ana in Manila Bay had perished at sea. “La muerte en el mar debe ser esperada, cotidiano incluso, solamente nunca es aceptable,” the captain often said. “Death at sea is to be expected, quotidian even, but it is never acceptable.”
Sea lions on the cape were barking. “They sound more like sea donkeys,” he laughed. Just then a sailor in the crow’s nest cried, “Vela! Vela!” Alzola raised his telescope and spotted two small ships on the horizon. “English pirates!” he cursed. “Pinche cabrón, pendejo!”
At Sampeguita, the gated community where my parents live on San Jose del Cabo Bay, every unit has a second-storey master bedroom. The old man hasn’t climbed those stairs in years, but my mother usually sleeps up there. The room has a spectacular view of the bay.
Lately, when I’ve come to visit, she’s given me this room and moved into the garage. My sister gets the same treatment. We’re spoilt, for sure, but what can we do, she insists. Besides, the garage is where she keeps her workstation and all of her bits and bobs, and it’s air conditioned.
This past week Cabo has experienced apocalyptic levels of humidity. A new air conditioner was installed in the master bedroom. No wonder I’m spending more time upstairs, sitting at the wooden writing desk, which looks like the poop deck on a Spanish galleon and has multiple hidden drawers and secret compartments.
In 2012, I wrote the first few chapters of my second novel Pirates at this desk.
Then, as now, staying focused was difficult. Sliding glass doors open onto a terra-cotta balcony with a vista that stretches across the bay, from Palmilla to Punta Gorda. Occasionally I go out for a smoke. One hit of that Acapulco Gold and I am spellbound, my face a wide open, pie-eyed target for well placed cannon shot. Mercifully, pirate ships no longer bedevil the Sea of Cortez.
I once saw a killer whale hunting in the littoral waters, a joy to watch through binoculars. But my greatest WTF moment came the morning I stepped out on the balcony to blaze and found a futuristic naval warship cruising up and down the bay, like a dark and menacing cyber-kraken from the future, the most badass ocean craft I’d ever seen.
Turned out to be USS Independence, a high-speed “littoral combat ship” from the naval base in San Diego. With her trimaran hull she specialized in operations close to shore, and had sailed into Mexican waters to provide extra security for Secretary Clinton’s visit to Cabo; she was attending the first ever meeting of the G-20’s foreign ministers, at Barceló Grand Faro, 250 yards up the beach from where my parents live.
For the native Pericú indians watching from shore that November day in 1587, the kerfuffle off Cabo must have been quite the WTF moment. Three galleons flying two different colors were sizing each other up. Two ships had cannons, the other blunderbusses and stones. They hurled insults, too, at each other, in Spanish (“Pinche cabrón, pendejo! No sea gorgojos idos!”) and in English (“God’s teeth, I bite my thumb at you, you half-faced, onion-eyed, huggermugger!”).
These were not the first galleons the Pericú had seen sailing their waters. Elaborate boats helmed by elaborate boatmen had been dropping anchor off Cabo for fifty years. They came for what the Pericú called Añuiti (place full of reeds) and the Spanish Aguada Segura (safe spring), the only reliable source of fresh water within hundreds of miles.
Being one of a few tribes on the California coasts to have mastered watercraft, the Pericú were open-minded to the arrival of big boats from across the sea. But seeing them engage in hostilities was a first, indeed terrifying for those out fishing at the time.
The Spanish galleon was nearly four times the size of the two English galleons put together, yet she had no cannons to fire back at them. After one of the English ships came alongside, sailors began boarding but were quickly driven back, some into the sea. The English then pulled back, to pursue their prize with the full force of their guns, firing everything they had at her.
After the Spanish galleon began to sink the raiders again boarded, were again met with dogged resistance by her crew, but finally took control of the ship. They sailed her to a bay enclosing the mouth of the freshwater river so prized by the Spanish, where they anchored, removed the surviving crew and passengers to shore, then started pumping out seawater. They needed to keep her afloat long enough to unload her cargo.
The Pericú indians, who by then had gathered in large numbers on the beach to watch the spectacle offshore, could not have known that this single act of piracy would spell their doom.
Writing pirate yarns distracts me from the phantasmagoric image of my old man laying on his everlasting death bed. I feel guilty for not spending more time at his bedside, for not being able to do much for him, and for ignoring him.
“What’s that brownie got in it?” he asks, as chocolate crumbs tumble down his chest. He’s noticed something different in the mix. “Marijuana?”
“That’s right, dad. Remember, we talked about this. Gerry got the weed, mom paid for it, and Bobby cooked it up in a batch of chocolate brownies.”
“Oh,” he says. Later he complains of a belly ache.
“So you don’t like the brownies?” I ask.
“No,” he says, “I like the brownies. The brownies don’t like me.” "Did it have any effect on you?" "What?" "DID IT HAVE ANY EFFECT ON YOU?" "Yeah, I was dancing with the fairies."
Trudging back upstairs to my cave I take refuge behind a thicket of words. It’s my very own stairway to heaven. Dad, I think, needs a stairlift.
We departed out of Plymouth on Thursday, the 21 of July, 1586, with 3 sails, to wit, the Desire, a ship of 120 tons, the Content, of 60 tons, and the Hugh Gallant, a bark of 40 tons: in which small fleet were 123 persons of all sorts, with all kind of furniture and victuals sufficient for the space of two years.”- Francis Pretty, man-at-arms on the Desire
The circumstances surrounding the sacking of the Santa Ana were serendipitous. The Manila galleon just happened to be carrying more than the usual rewards on that particular sea voyage. England was at war with Spain. And Thomas “The Navigator” Cavendish, an English privateer who had been given license by Elizabeth I to lay to waste every beslubbering Spanish outpost and galleon he found on his sea voyages, just happened to be in the neighborhood.
For six months he had been sailing up the South Sea, raiding ports, sinking ships, and burning churches in the Americas. He then heard from a Spaniard he had captured that the Santa Ana, a 700 ton galleon stripped of her cannons was sailing solo from Manila to Acupulco with a large cargo worth hundreds of thousands of pesos, and was due to arrive soon at Aguada Segura.
Cavendish knew that after a such a long sea voyage crew and passengers would be gagging for fresh water, and in no condition to resist an attack, especially without proper weapons.He must have been smiling to himself as they set sail for Cabo, swaggering on the sun bleached poop deck of his beloved Desire, gob smackingly amazed by the cunningness of own brilliant plan. Francis Pretty, his man-at-arms, describes the bay they sailed into:
The 14 of October we fell with the Cape of St Lucar, which cape is very like the Needles at the Isle of Wight ; and within the said cape is a great bay called by the Spaniards Aguada Segura: into which bay falleth a fair fresh river, about which many Indians use to keep. We watered in the river, and lay off and on from the said Cape of St Lucar until the fourth of November, and had the winds hanging still westerly.
From my writing desk I can see the same “great bay” where the privateers dropped anchor four centuries ago. Now there’s a highway through it and piles of waterfront condos, but essentially it’s still the same desert oasis on the bay: Añuiti, Aguada Segura, San Jose del Cabo.
For three weeks they waited, foraying onto shore from time to time to barter with the Pericú for fresh water. Anything metal was of great value to them. A soup ladle fetched six barrels of water.
The natives, who had never known galleons to stay for so long, had no idea what they were up to nor did they make any trouble for them. Too busy gathering roots and shoots for the next shamanistic ritual, which they hoped would keep the danger they could smell at bay, they paid them no mind.
Without so much as a breath, Pretty recounts the events as they unfolded from the moment the Santa Ana rounded the cape:
The 4 of November the Desire and the Content, wherein were the number of Englishmen only living, beating up and down upon the headland of California, which standeth in 23 degrees and face to the northward, between seven and 8 of the clock in the morning one of the company of our Admiral, which was the trumpeter of the ship, going up into the top, espied a sail bearing in from the sea with the cape. Whereupon he cried out, with no small joy to himself and the whole company, "A sail ! a sail !" With which cheerful word the master of the ship and divers others of the company went also up into the maintop. Who, perceiving the speech to be very true, gave information unto our General of these happy news, who was no less glad than the cause required : whereupon he gave in charge presently unto the whole company to put all things in readiness. Which being performed we gave them chase some 3 or 4 hours, standing with our best advantage and working for the wind. In the afternoon we gat up unto them, giving them the broadside with our great ordnance and a volley of small shot, and presently laid the ship aboard, whereof the king of Spain was owner, which was Admiral of the South Sea, called the St Anna, and thought to be 700 tons in burthen. Now, as we were ready on their ship's side to enter her, being not past 50 or 60 men at the uttermost in our ship, we perceived that the captain of the said ship had made fights fore and after, and laid their sails close on their poop, their midship, with their forecastle, and having not one man to be seen, stood close under their fights, with lances, javelins, rapiers, and targets, and an innumerable sort of great stones, which they threw overboard upon our heads and into our ship so fast, and being so many of them, that they put us off the ship again, with the loss of 2 of our men which were slain, and with the hurting of 4 or 5. But for all this we new trimmed our sails, and fitted every.man his furniture, and gave them a fresh encounter with our great ordnance and also with our small shot, raking them through and through, to the killing and maiming of many of their men. Their captain still, like a valiant man, with his company, stood very stoutly unto his close fights, not yielding as yet. Our General, encouraging his men afresh with the whole noise of trumpets, gave them the third encounter with our great ordnance and all our small shot, to the great discomforting of our enemies, raking them through in divers places, killing and spoiling many of their men. They being thus discomforted and spoiled, and their ship being in hazard of sinking by reason of the great shot which were made, whereof some were under water, within 5 or 6 hours' fight set out a flag of truce and parleyed for mercy, desiring our General to save their lives and to take their goods, and that they would presently yield. Our General of his goodness promised them mercy, and willed them to strike their sails, and to hoise out their boat and to come aboard. Which news they were full glad to hear of, and presently struck their sails, hoised their boat out, and one of their chief merchants came aboard unto our General, and falling down upon his knees, offered to have kissed our General's feet, and craved mercy. Our General most graciously pardoned both him and the rest upon promise of their true dealing with him and his company concerning such riches as were in the ship : and sent for the captain and their pilot, who at their coming used the hke duty and reverence as the former did. The General, of his great mercy and humanity, promised their lives and good usage. The said captain and pilot presently certified the General what goods they had within board, to wit, an hundred and 22 thousand pesos of gold : and the rest of the riches that the ship was laden with, was in silks, satins, damasks, with musk and divers other merchandise, and great store of all manner of victuals, with the choice of many conserves of all sorts for to eat, and of sundry sorts of very good wines. These things being made known to the General by the aforesaid captain and pilot, they were commanded to stay aboard the Desire, and on the 6 day of November following we went into a harbour which is called by the Spaniards Aguada Segura, or Puerto Seguro.
A fortnight passed. As a full moon rose up from the sea, every person of importance in the Pericú community was seated around the sacred fire. From atop their desert hill they had a favorable view of the valley where Añuiti flowed into the bay, and where the three ships that had been there since the half moon were now floating in moonbeams.
The light hanging over the hills behind them, against which the souls of their ancestors were silhouetted, was the color of a prickly pear. Scattered around them were the tools of the tribe: stone grinding basins, spears, lark's-head netting, and coiled basketry.
A shaman singing incantations, his face painted red with ochre, passed around a palm-bark vessel containing a liquid that had been simmering on the fire. Each person respectfully drank from it. An hour passed, taken up only by incantations. The sky was full of stars. Then the red-faced shaman climbed to the top of a sacred rock above them to call down supernatural forces.
For a moment the sky was empty. Suddenly, from the heavens above the bay came a flaming dragon that lit up the ships below with the glow of its tongue. The Pericú gasped, threw up their hands. Then came another fire demon over the bay, this one shaped like a palm tree, then more palm trees, a hefty flaming forest of palm trees. Never before had the shaman conjured up such mind-blowing sorcery. It helped that the psychoactive drugs were just kicking in. Still, WTF…
Three hundred and forty five years and a day later my father was born.
“Oh, Edmund, it's wonderful! But what about Melchy and Raleigh? You must have brought something for them as well. [Edmund clears his throat trying to think of something] - Nursie's got her beard, I've got my stick; what about the two boys?” - Queen, Blackadder II ‘The Potato’
“God bless the Queen,” roared Thomas “The Navigator” Cavendish, raising a glass to England’s sovereign of 30 years, “and long may she reign.” The Spanish captain also raised a glass, though not in triumph.
It was the night of 17 November, Coronation Day and Tomás de Alzola and a handful more people from the Santa Ana had been invited on board the Desire to celebrate with the English. It was as bizarre a situation as he had ever been in, toasting his enemy's monarch while his own king's property lay run-aground in the bay, looted of all her riches. The English captain’s toast was the cue for the master gunner to start the fireworks display. The Desire and the Content also made their salutes by firing fireworks from their cannons. They lit up the bay with a pyrotechnic spectacle the likes of which Alzola and his men had never seen before.
“Impressive, hey?” said Cavendish putting an arm around the Spaniard who stood awestruck, his eyes fixed to the sky. “I was given a dozen barrels of water just for telling the native warlock we’d be having a firework display this evensong. Ha ha…” He then reached into his coat and produced a brass instrument, the very same one the Spanish captain had been holding when he was captured.
“An ancient astrolabe?” said Cavendish, brandishing the object so the others could see it. “Were you planning on traveling back in time?” His officers roared with laughter.
“May I have it back,” asked Alzola, reaching out. “It was a gift from…” He stopped short, knowing how Cavendish felt about Catholics. The week before The Navigator had had a friar hung by the neck from the Santa Ana’s yardarm just for making the sign of the cross.
“No, you may not,” snapped Cavendish, who then threw the object into the sea. “By the way, could I get you to sign this bill of sale for the cargo we’re purloining?”
It took the privateers two weeks to offload the Manila galleon of her most precious cargoes. For want of stowage on their own two small vessels, they were forced to leave a few things behind, much of which had already been tossed overboard into the sea.
Before departing, in an uncharacteristic show of empathy, Cavendish gave weapons, provisions, and the Santa Ana’s sails for shelter to the seafarers marooned in the bay. He then set fire to their ship. She was still ablaze when Desire and Content set a course for the Philippines, with the booty split between the two sails.
The 19 day of November aforesaid, about 3 of the clock in the afternoon, our General caused the king's ship to be set on fire, which, having to the quantity of 500 tons of goods in her, we saw burnt unto the water, and then gave them a piece of ordnance and set sail joyfully homewards towards England with a fair wind, which by this time was come about to east-north-east. And night growing near, we left the Content astern of us, which was not as yet come out of the road. And here, thinking she would have overtaken us, we lost her company and never saw her after.
Two years and fifty days after his departure from Plymouth, Thomas Cavendish sailed back into the same harbour. The Desire was only the third ship to circumnavigate the globe, after the Victoria of Ferdinand Magellan (journey completed by Juan Sebastián Elcano) and the Golden Hind of Francis Drake.
Cavendish invited Queen Elizabeth to a dinner aboard the Desire. She was suitably impressed by his haul of gold, silver, silks, ivory, spices, and porcelain. Thereafter he was knighted and joyfully celebrated across the realm. He was 28.
Although a scoundrel and a scalawag, he does deserve kudos for his audacity. In the 250 years that Manila galleons sailed the trade route between the Philippines and Mexico, no greater prize was ever looted from a “nao de China” than Cavendish's haul from the Santa Ana. Three years later he had already squandered his fortune. He died at sea at the age of 31.
By the time I was 21 I had circumnavigated the globe five times. I have my parents to thank for that fanfaronade. They took me everywhere, from continent to continent, ocean to ocean. In time, like a satellite that’s reached critical orbit, I could not be stopped. The world is a blur to me now.
At 54 I move continents on average every six and a half years. That’s a pirate’s life for me. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Can’t say the same for my parents. Retiring to Cabo twenty five years ago was meant to ensure the good times never ended, that they could both continue to enjoy their singular lifestyles up until the day they each shook off that mortal coil.
But my father is trapped in a body that will neither let him rise from his deathbed nor let him die in it. And my mother is trapped in a situation that requires more strength and presence of mind than an octogenarian can always muster. Sadly, there’s no way around it. The saddest thing is how little my dad remembers of his own accomplishments: building 'comfort stations' in the slums of Ibadan, revitalizing the safari circuit in northern Tanzania, overhauling Air Lanka in Sri Lanka, finding a million jobs for Indonesians, and advising the Singapore government on how not to be dicks. Even the highlights are gone, no longer there to comfort him in his moment of reflection: scuba diving in the Maldives, skiing in Syria, building a waterfront dream home in San Jose del Cabo.
These days, the English and Spanish no longer visit Cabo, nor does Hillary Clinton. The Pericú indians are no longer here either. Two hundred years ago, war and disease carried over by conquistadors and missionaries, who had been sent by Spain to secure the California coast against future pirate raids, killed off the Pericú indians. Nothing of their culture and language remains.
Occasionally there’ll be a firework display in San Jose del Cabo Bay, over near Palmilla, or out in front of Barceló Grand Faro, but no one’s quite sure why. You can take a cruise aboard an authentic galleon, sail around Cabo San Lucas on a “family-friendly pirate-themed adventure” while drinking tequila and keeping a bleary eye out for whales. Yup, the pirate theme prevails, in a plethora of colourful tourist attractions. True pirates, though, are lost at sea.
Tomás de Alzola is the hero of this pirate yarn. His heroism emerges in the final chapter. For as soon as those privateers had sailed over the horizon, leaving the Spanish galleon ablaze, Alzola and his seafarers swam out to the ship and put out the fire. They then set about rebuilding her, fixing her hull, raising her sails, and setting her adrift again on the Sea of Cortez.
On 6 January 1588, seven months after leaving the Philippines, the Santa Ana limped into Acapulco, minus her cargo. On board, as well as Captain Alzola and the survivors, were two Pericú indians, husband and wife.
I have a recurring dream about my father struggling out of his bed and into his wheelchair, wheeling himself out onto the beach, and then down to the edge of the surf where a boat is waiting. He drags himself onto the boat, then pushes off and drifts out into the bay.
The sea, mirroring a billion brilliant stars under a moonless sky, is as calm as a millpond, not a ripple. Leaning over the bow he sees his reflection in the water. “There,” he whispers, “what’s that?” A league beneath the surface, glimmering in the starlight is an object resting in the sand, a brass instrument. “It’s an astrolabe,” dad says, then closes his eyes and passes away.
This morning I woke up to a strange sound, like a miniature helicopter. A black witch moth the size of a bat was thumping against my bathroom window. A window below was open but the moth had no plan B. I grabbed it and chucked it out the open window. It flew away.
Here in Mexico they call the black witch moth ‘Mariposa de la muerte’, meaning butterfly of death. If one enters a house where there is sickness, it is believed the sick person will die.
Ever since we brought dad home from hospital our house has been infested with black witch moths. Every day I rescue one, help it circumvent a closed window or a screen door. But they just keep coming back. Even now, as I write this, there’s one on the wall above my desk. From the white V mark across its wings, I know that it’s a female. She hasn’t moved since morning.
Caring for dad at home has thrown up a plethora of new challenges. There’s no pattern to his needs, and he has no sense of time. Often he’ll come up with a whole new hair brained plan about what needs to be done, in the middle of the night. Still, he’s never short of praise, thinks mom and I are consummate caregivers that should be in business together.
“Rectal cleaning service, mom and son business,” he quips, “$60 a crack. All repeat business - people need to shit every day. Discount for a month’s coverage. Market to Gringo retirees and seniors living in the South. No competition…Who the hell wants to clean assholes? No one!”
He likes his wit like he likes his martinis, dry.
It’s hopeful and heartwarming to see him laugh heartily, but those moments are the exception not the rule. My time with him is mostly spent watching him sleep or just lie there, mouth agape, staring at the ceiling. Occasionally he looks up at me, but without his glasses I’m just a blur.
What’s he thinking? Does he want to die? He hasn’t said as much lately. “I’m helpless,” he said last night, with a voice laden with confusion and remorse. “What can I do?”
“Not much.” I replied.
“Something has to happen…and I can’t do it from here.”
“What?” I asked.
“I don’t know…Do you?”
“Can we let it happen tomorrow?” he asked.
“Whatever…Will you come and look in on me from time to time?”
It took some effort and we shopped around a bit but we’ve finally got dad the home care he needs. Ernesto, a nurse who speaks fluent English, comes to bathe him on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and Rossio, a physiotherapist, comes to help him with his muscle work on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. She’s hopeful he will eventually stand on his own two feet.
As many people have been coming to fix the air conditioning. Like my father, it’s been working on and off lately. The situation is more bearable now that the temperature in Los Cabos has dropped a few degrees. But the workmen are unreliable, say they’re coming and never show up.
Gerry knows a guy who can fix air conditioners, and thinks we need a third opinion. “You don’t have to tear up the tiles to replace those air-con pipes,” he says, with an accent that sounds like both Cheech and Chong. “You can just put a little box against the skirting like this…” He bends down and runs his hand along the crease of the wall of my father’s room. “That way they don’t have to disturb Ian.” My mother frowns at this suggestion.
Considering our failing air, there sure is a lot of thin ice in this house. Caring for the old man is stressful. Sometimes we crack. Yet despite my mother’s anxieties regarding methodology, she is highly resourceful and practical. I admire her more than I let on; she thinks I talk down to her, regard her as intellectually inferior. But I don’t. She’s proved to me time and time again that she knows things beyond my scope, that subtle intuition trumps hubris, and that she has extra sensory sleuthing powers (she missed her calling as a private detective).
She keeps both husband and home functioning, has done for six decades. Her ultimate home, here in Los Cabos, was woven from the fabric of the more than two dozen rental homes all over the world that she made cozy for us to live in. Every new city to which we got posted involved my father flying out ahead of time and finding adequate digs. A month later the rest of us would follow. My mother would then correct his poor choices and find us somewhere magical to live.
For me, home was never truly home until the shipment arrived. Therein lay my richest treasures, trapped for months on the high seas, possessions that grew more mysterious with the passage of time: Frogman Action Man and his blow-up Zodiac boat, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath LPs, and my six-inch reflector telescope.
Toys and records aside, the family keepsakes too were a comforting continuum from one place to the next, the string that held together the bead of one posting to the bead of another. Now when I visit the house in Baja I see some of those totems on the walls and shelves, juju that triggers time machines, opens portals that I easily fall into.
Cortez is an angry sea. At night its waves strike the beach with an asymmetrical beat. For days now it’s been pounding the Baja coastline with massive swells, the consequence of a hurricane passing north west of the peninsula. Today, however, it’s calm.
Sitting on the beach, gazing at the salubriously tranquil water, and rubbing my injured shoulder, I think, “I could do with the hydrotherapy.” I stand up and stride into the surfy soup. Froth lashes at my shins. The currents are stronger than I had anticipated, but I continue wading out regardless. Once I clear the small stuff, I begin swimming breaststroke. It’s so refreshing.
Suddenly a swell rises up before me, much larger than anything I’d seen from the beach. Looking over my shoulder, I can see that returning to shore is no longer an option, and ahead, I cannot swim fast enough. All at once the wave brakes, thunderously avalanching a ton of brilliant white froth towards me. I dive underwater and swim beneath the surf. It sounds like exploding ordinance, like the beach is being bombed.
After surfacing, I barely have time to catch my breath when another massive roller, larger than the last, begins to rise up before me. “This one’s a killer,” I whisper. Hyperventilating to give myself more time underwater, I wait until the very last moment. On the face of it, time appears to stand still. Three pelicans skim across the crest of the wave, hunting for fish trapped in its pellucid sea wall. I dive under, and just in the nick of time, taking the brunt of force on my legs.
Resurfacing, I now fear for my life. The period between waves is insufficient to recover. Another comes at me, and then another, every time a bigger one. And I dive under them all, swimming longer and farther each time. Finally I get beyond the swell, and there are no more waves on my horizon. But I am some three hundred yards from shore and drained of all my might.
Under an azure sky, treading water just enough to keep my chin above the sea’s deceptively calm undulations, I think of Neil Young’s ‘Cortez the Killer’. “He came dancing across the water / With his galleons and guns / Looking for the new world / In that palace in the sun.” The song is about Hernán Cortés, a conquistador who conquered the Aztecs and colonized Mexico for the Spanish, and the eponym of this sea on which I am floating.
With a slow butterfly stroke, or moth stroke, I carefully swim back to shore, occasionally looking over my shoulder to see what might be coming up behind me. Sure enough a whole new set of waves is on my tail. Swimming side-stroke now, with an eye on the breakers, I take a chance on riding them. Every wave, as mighty as it seems, simply picks me up and gently plants me closer to the shore, before breaking just beyond me. I can’t believe my luck. In due course, and much to the surprise of the Mexicans who have been watching me all along, I step out of the surf and calmly walk back up onto the beach.
Dad is sitting on the porch in his rocking chair, comfortably surveying the view. Rossio, his physio, got him to stand momentarily while she shifted him from his wheelchair to the rocking chair. Progress! Soon he’ll be back on the dry martinis as well.
Looking around I notice something is missing. The black witch moths have all gone.